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Historian Howard Zinn, practitioner of tzedek
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Historian Howard Zinn, practitioner of tzedek

In ‘A People’s History,’ he taught America a new kind of story

Howard Zinn celebrated America’s “bottom-up” history.
Howard Zinn celebrated America’s “bottom-up” history.

I wrote half a dozen leaders of progressive thought and action in America, each separately, a letter to ask their thoughts on a proposal.

I proposed that hundreds of thousands of Americans join in creating a grand coalition calling for independence from the corporate and military elites that have taken great power over America’s future, and gather all over our country on July 4 — Independence Day.

One of the people I wrote was the historian/activist Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, whom I have known for 45 years or so. He responded just 90 minutes later. This is what he wrote:

“Arthur, you are absolutely right, this is the time for the resurgence of a national movement that begins with a coordinated country-wide action.

“The theme you describe, ‘independence from the military-corporation,’ is one that all sorts of people and groups can unite around. I believe millions, probably tens of millions of people are ready for this because there is little left of the early euphoria that greeted Obama’s election.

“A huge job to organize it, but it was done for Mobilization Day Oct. 15, 1969, and without the advantage of the Internet.”

I was going to write Howard last Thursday to ask whether he’d invite some people to meet to talk about the possibilities.

But I couldn’t. Howard died the day before, at age 87.

He was one of the wisest, gentlest, dryly good-humored of progressive thinkers and activists. Born into an uneducated family of European Jews, Zinn fused writing and teaching and change-making into a life in which learning and action were all of a piece.

He served in the U.S. Army as a bombardier during World War II, and after writing a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University on Fiorello LaGuardia, in the 1960s became chair of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black women’s college. As the sit-in movement grew, he worked closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and wrote a book about them as “the new abolitionists.” He learned from his war experience in Europe to be skeptical about whether bombing raids actually helped win victories, or mostly killed civilians; and he opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

He was the best of the America he celebrated in his bottom-up history, in which the energies and currents of blacks, of workers, of women, of religious minorities, of war resisters, were the center — not presidents and senators.

Since we can’t ask him to convene the possible nucleus of a coalition, is it possible to see those few words as a kind of legacy that we can turn into a new chapter of the “people’s history”?

Two stories, one from the distant past, one from just a few weeks ago:

In the mid-’60s, Howard spoke at a gathering in Washington about the Vietnam War. He said that most of the time, the American people — any people — walks around in the dark, bumping blindly into extremely dangerous and hurtful objects: wars, depressions, racism, drug epidemics, police violence. Literally blind-sided, again and again.

But occasionally, some event becomes a lightning flash, illuminating the structures of power behind these disasters. He said Vietnam had become a lightning flash. We were for the first time seeing the connections between the universities and the military, we were seeing the way children were channeled from their earliest years (without regard to their intelligence or creativity) into becoming factory workers, or unemployed, or lawyers, or ….

And our job, he said, was to try to turn these lightning flashes into steady light, to help a whole society keep seeing the truth about itself.

In late December: I had sent out an essay in a satirical vein, pointing up the absurdity of the way Washington is carrying out the Afghanistan war in order to defeat “terrorism” (www.theshalomcenter.org/node/1676).

Several folks wrote or called to tell me they didn’t think humor, even or especially bitter humor, was appropriate in talking about a war. I felt dismayed, unsettled, dispirited.

Then I got this note from Howard: “Dear Art,” he wrote. “A friend of mine just sent me this piece you wrote — satiric, powerful — about Detroit, Islam, Kabul, terrorism. It is a brilliant commentary and I have passed it on to a number of people. Thank you for it. I wish you a peaceful and joyful New Year. Howard.”

Dear Howard, I’m not so sure about “brilliant,” but I’m glad you felt the humor had some bite where our rulers need to be bitten. You revived my spirits.

And — dear, dear Howard — I wish you a joyful New Year making trouble for the authorities in Heaven. If ever the memories, the teachings, of a tzadik — a practitioner of tzedek, justice — could bring blessing to those who are still scrabbling for justice on this stricken earth, it’s the memories and teachings you left us.

Shalom, salaam, shantih — peace!

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